Whale conservation spurs economic revival in Mexican fishing community

Photographer: Claudia Auladell Quintana
Barra de Potosí and surrounding area from above. Photographer: Andrea Jacqueline Garcia Chavez

Barra de Potosí is a tiny fishing village located in Southwest Pacific Mexico. Tucked between a mangrove and salt flat-lined lagoon and a 12-mile golden sand beach, Barra used to be the fishiest place I knew. When I first arrived 18 years ago, tiny fish would thwack my legs in the surf, every fourth wave revealed the form of a big yellowfin or needlefish, and schools of bottlenose dolphins patrolled the coast daily. It took about an hour to hand line in enough red snapper and dorado to feed ourselves, the fishermen’s families and still have a few fish left to sell, to pay for the gas. My fish fever and love of pristine beaches kept me returning for years.

Photographer: Andrea Jacqueline Garcia Chavez

In 2011, I got married on the beach there, surrounded by 80 friends from around the world. I loved introducing my favorite people to this special place, so teeming with life.

However, I noticed, as I spent time in the village planning my wedding and visiting with friends, that things were getting harder. The fishing wasn’t what it used to be and the diving had become lackluster. In general, people weren’t looking healthy. Few could afford backpacks and notebooks for their kids, or to fix the holes in their roofs.

 The 80 wedding guests who spent the week eating guacamole and tacos in local restaurants, buying art from the women, going on lagoon tours and staying in nearby accommodations infused enough money into the village for many of my local friends to pay off old debts, make repairs and buy school supplies for their kids. It was the best wedding present ever.

I decided to write a story about this place, to see if I could give the village another boost. I sang the praises of this nature lover’s wonderland for a Travel Feature in the Sunday Oregonian and was delighted when that story brought in hundreds of ecotourists who were thrilled to discover a new favorite vacation spot. Long-empty vacation rentals filled, businesses hired more people to keep up with the demand for guacamole and tacos, and the struggling fishery got a little respite thanks to the bump in tourism.

 That’s when I decided to make it my job to help. I could have continued as Barra de Potosí’s self-assigned, one-woman media relations team, but it didn’t seem like enough to just bring in tourists.

Local boy, Yaciel Cabrera, hand line fishing with shrimp boat in the distance. Photographer: Andrea Jacqueline Garcia Chavez

Now, besides loving the ocean and Mexico and making good things happen for people, there’s one thing I can’t seem to stop thinking about: WHALES.

Those great pickle-shaped blubbery beasts haunt my dreams, my bookshelves and my cocktail party conversations like nothing else.

Every winter when I visited Barra de Potosí, I saw whales blowing in the distance, but no one local could tell me what kind of whales they were, or where they came from and went the rest of the year. Fishermen had some generalized names and notions about the dolphins that loved to bowride our boats and surf the shore waves, but really, little was known. I’ve volunteered with dozens of whale research projects. I’ve also written many stories about marine mammals, and been a visitor researcher and evaluator at a science museum, so I did a quick and dirty community survey and literature review to find out two things: 1) the locals didn’t know or really have any particular interest in the marine mammals that inhabit their shores and 2) no one had ever done in-depth research about the marine mammals around Barra de Potosí.

And so, the Whales of Guerrero Research Project was born. Over the past four years, I have worked to survey Barra’s humpback whales in partnership with the local community, teach local fishermen how to manage their boats responsibly around whales and dolphins and give them the knowledge needed to be great ecotour guides, and boost the economy by letting the world know about this region’s incredible natural offerings. I look forward to sharing stories and photos from the field here on National Geographic Voices in the coming months.

Pair of jumping spinner dolphins. Photographer: Pablo Chevallard Navarro

Katherina Audley has participated in whale research projects around the world since 1997. Since 2013, she has led a cooperative research, ecotourism and environmental education program in Barra de Potosí that reaches 100,000 people each year. Katherina received a National Geographic Conservation Trust grant in 2015. Find out more about the Whales of Guerrero Research Project at:

Find out how to get a National Geographic research grant.


  1. Bill Rossiter
    June 14, 2:08 pm

    Katherina is simply wonderful at what she does, and deserves all the help she can get, because what she does is help whales and people! If Cetacean Society International had more money we would put it on her and WGRP, because they are making a positive change in this time of growing concern.